Extinction Fears after Spike in 50-year Hedgehog Decline

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By Timur Moon | February 2, 2013 11:32 PM EST

Britain's hedgehog population fell by an estimated 35 million to just one million over the past 50 years

Britain's hedgehogs could soon be an endangered species after their numbers plunged by an estimated 35 million to just one million over the last 50 years.

The hedgehog population stood at 35 million in 1960, and showed a staggering 37 percent decline over the last decade alone, according to the People's Trust for Endangered Species.

The alarming prospect of a Britain without hedgehogs was reported as far afield as Brazil and Thailand, and featured on Radio Moscow's Voice Of Russia this week.

Shrinking natural habitats over the last half century are believed to be the principal cause of the dwindling numbers, says the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

"Whether it's a reduction of 35 million or 10 million, the fact remains that the hedgehog population is declining at an alarming rate," said ecologist Hugh Warwick.

"We know this for certain. In the past 10 years their numbers have declined by about 37 percent. That's about the same rate as the world's tigers are disappearing. And the same thing is likely to happen to them if we don't act. They are heading for extinction."

The British propensity for neatly fenced-off back gardens is being blamed for the decline, along with the continued use of pesticides such as slug pellets, which can be fatal to hedgehogs. Sales of pesticides doubled last year, during what was the wettest spring on record.

"Where they could once survive very happily in an urban area, in the middle of quite a lot of houses, they now often find that they are so hemmed in that they can't thrive," said Fay Vass, chief executive of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

"There's a common belief that one back garden is enough space for one hedgehog but some can travel up to two miles in a night, roaming around looking for food or for another hedgehog to mate with at the right time of year.

"We're also generally tidier about our gardening these days. Every inch is cultivated, no corner neglected."

Even ecologically sound methods of hedgehog control such as beer traps should be used with caution, said Vass. "Cover beer traps so that the hedgehogs cannot be tempted in by the slugs because they do like a good slurp of stout if they can get it," she said.

And as fast as hedgehogs disappear, Britain's badger population is rising, particularly in Wales and the west of England. This is despite repeated attempts to cull badger numbers in the south-west.

But in the battle for worms, slugs and beetles that are the preferred food for both species, badgers are getting the better of their cousins.

"I teach schoolchildren to say, 'hedgehogs and badgers have an asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship'," Warwick informed the Daily Express. "All it means is that they both eat the same thing.

"Much as I like the idea that little gangs of hedgehogs gang up on the badgers and win one or two of these battles, the sad fact is that it's the hedgehog who goes away hungry."

This has caused an east-west divide, according to the Express, in which the hedgehog's heartland remains East Anglia, and east of the Pennines. Populations in the Cotswolds, Devon and Cornwall currently number about half that in the east.

Modern farming methods compress the soil, leaving fewer worms, insects and other fodder in the ground, while increased road-building has cut land into smaller enclosures.

Warwick has tracked hedgehogs by attaching transmitters to their legs, and has monitored their nightly movements over long distances. "The furthest I tracked one was two kilometres in one night as the crow flies, but no hedgehog knowingly walks in a straight line," he said.

"It's getting harder and harder for them to find a range where they can wander undisturbed by cars and badgers, and unhindered by fences, and find enough food. There are, I suspect, already areas in Britain where a kind of piecemeal extinction of hedgehogs is under way."

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